Ship of Fools
December 2, 2014 by Thomas Wictor
My post Tell Me Again that Hatred of Jews Isn’t a Factor has received some pushback from Jewish people. They think my assessment of western media is too harsh. To recap, my position is that reporters don’t “get Israel wrong”; they deliberately misrepresent Israel because they hate Jews. The comments I’ve gotten remind of one of my favorite films, Ship of Fools.
Before I talk about the movie, I need to explain that I most definitely don’t think that those who disagree with me are fools. The point of this post is to honor one of the most brilliant, powerful, ghastly scenes in cinematic history, a few seconds of film that haunt me to this day.
(You may want to watch the movie first. I don’t think this post is a spoiler; what I’ll describe affects me personally, but it isn’t integral to the plot. You make the choice.)
I perfectly understand the viewpoint of Jewish people who think I’m too hotheaded. My life experiences have made me unable to take a “softly softly” approach. I believe that all evil is volitional, and it must be called out in plain language at every opportunity.
But that doesn’t mean you have to agree with me.
Ship of Fools
In 1933 a German passenger liner departs from Veracruz, Mexico, for Bremerhaven, Germany. It stops in Cuba to pick of hundreds of Spanish sugar-cane harvesters who have to ride on the open decks and in the cargo holds.
The genius Michael Dunn breaks the fourth wall to address the audience at the beginning and end of the film.
Dunn is one of my heroes. Despite his physical afflictions, he became a phenomenal actor. He began his career as a nightclub singer, even though his dwarfism resulted in a dramatically constricted chest.
Dunn specialized in surreality. Almost every film and TV show appearance he made is utterly bizarre. He died at the age of thirty-eight, due to the strain that his barely functional lungs put on his heart. He also had full-body osteoarthritis, the condition that cost me my ability to play the bass guitar.
He drank heavily, a contributing factor to his death. In the end he couldn’t overcome the physical and psychic chains. Still, this quote he gave Life magazine shows his courage.
I’ve always lived with constant pain, so that wasn’t a factor in whether I made a life for myself or not. I could have copped out, lived with my parents, and pulled the dwarf bit.
Well, he certainly didn’t cop out. He made great art that will live forever.
In Ship of Fools, Dunn (as Karl Glocken) isn’t allowed to sit at the captain’s table with all the other Germans. Instead, he’s placed at a table with cheerful German Jew Julius Lowenthal, played by Heinz Ruehmann.
The contempt and disrespect shown Lowenthal for being a Jew never gets him down.
“If you look for it, you can find something good in anybody,” Lowenthal insists. “There’s prejudice everywhere. It does no good to give it back.”
“Why do you take it?” a German passenger asks.
“I’ve been taking it for a long time,” Lowenthal says. “A little patience. A little understanding. The world’s getting better all the time.”
Later in the voyage, Lowenthal and Glocken listen to fanatical, Jew-hating Nazi Sigfried Rieber and ditsy Fraulein Lizzi Spoekenkieker sing “Heute Abend Geh’n Wir Bummeln Auf Der Reeperbahn.” (“Tonight We Will Go Shopping on The Reeperbahn”).
After that hideous performance, a saccharine German waltz begins to play.
“Tell me, Glocken,” says Lowenthal. “Now honestly: When you hear that music wherever you are, don’t you have a special feeling about being a German?”
“I’ll tell you, Lowenthal,” replies Glocken. “Now honestly: When I hear that music wherever I am, I have a special feeling about being a dwarf.”
Lowenthal describes seeing a newsreel in New York about the funeral of Kaiserin Viktoria, the last German empress, who died April 11, 1921.
“That good woman,” Lowenthal says. “How much she meant to all of us!”
Glocken rolls his eyes. “You are German, aren’t you?” he sighs. “You are the most German person I have ever met.”
Then Lowenthal takes out a medal he was awarded for courage in World War I. It’s the Iron Cross, Second Class.
“And a war hero besides,” says Glocken. “You may be the biggest fool on this whole boat.”
“Why do you say that?” Lowenthal asks, upset.
“Where have you been during this voyage?” Glocken explodes.
For the first time Lowenthal is angry. “Do you think this boat is a cross section of the German people? No. You don’t know the average German the way I know him. The people that produced a Goethe, a Beethoven, and a Bach are not to sneezed at, you know.”
“Fifty percent of the people who produced a Goethe, a Beethoven, and a Bach voted for Rieber’s party last week,” snaps Glocken.
“Forty-four percent,” says Lowenthal.
“Lowenthal, you are blind, absolutely blind,” Glocken nearly shouts. “You can’t see what’s going on in front of your own face!”
“What do you mean?” asks Lowenthal. “Ah! You mean this business about the Jews? You don’t understand us. The German Jew is something special. We are Germans first and Jews second. We have done so much for Germany. Germany has done so much for us. A little patience. A little goodwill. It works itself out.”
Lowenthal then laughs and delivers the coup de grace. “Listen: There are nearly a million Jews in Germany. What are they going to do, kill all of us?”
* * *
That scene gets me every time I see it.
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